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DMX at Roots Picnic
DMX at Roots Picnic
Photo By @AverieCole

Roots Picnic 2016 Was Non-Stop Revelations + Surprises w/ Usher, DMX, Will Smith + More!

Photos by Mel D. Cole, Averie Cole & Seher Sikandar for Okayplayer.

We have a tendency to say this every year but for real Roots Picnic 2016 was the best picnic yet. The bill was stacked with legends in their own time, multiplied by an ongoing series of surprises and cameos that made every set a headlining set, a cascading series of musical highs that just built throughout the day.

Setting things off in style, Parkwood signees (and First Look artists!) Chloe & Halle had a spectacular Roots Picnic debut, making up for their tender age with uncanny showmanship, razor sharp choreography and heavenly harmonics. Zoe Kravitz’ outfit LolaWolf, GoGo Morrow, Jodie Abacus, Tish Hyman and Paris Monster maintained the young star power that characterized the opening sets.

Nobody embodied that sense more than Willow Smith, who lithely flowed around the stage as if she was literally born in the spotlight, instead of just figuratively. But then her set also became the first major surprise of the festival when papa Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff joined Willow onstage--and made summer official by performing their hit “Summertime” and confirming that they will be touring together sooner than you expect. Surprise Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince reunion, performing “Summertime” the Roots a bit like standing on the equator at 12 noon and looking into the eyes of the sun, while eating a hot pepper. It’s such a concentrated dose of summertime it can be unsafe if not ready for it and the crowd just about blew up, just a little more than an hour after doors open--this is when we knew this year’s Roots Picnic was gonna be big.

Enter Migos. They play with a backing track but that doesn't matter--what matters is thousands of people yelling "I've been trapping trapping trapping trapping all damn night" together, lost in the collective camaraderie of turning the fuck up. Only two thirds of Migos (Quavo and Takeoff) were accounted for but “Fight Night” was the wave of the early sets and the crowd went absolutely banoodles. Rich Medina spun a silk smooth set that caught us right in the feels. Pulling no punches, we heard a blend of everything from D'Angelo to James Brown to P-Funk and well beyond (that "Dancing Machine" flip was a trip). What can you say about Lil Dicky except: "Lil Dicky is a savage." (?) Ibeyi enchanted with their unique blend of Afro-Cuban rhythms and spooky r&b.

Lil Uzi Vert had everyone bouncing. "Who The Fuck Are You?" was a crowd pleaser. He took to a boxcar onstage and rapped from on high, then jumped into the crowd. There was little doubt he's having fun and it was contagious--all the kids love him. LUV brought out his girl and Meek Mill and Quavo and Takeoff appeared towards the end of his set.

Meek made almost as big a splash backstage by walking through the hangout area with Nicki Minaj on his arm, giving people a chance to gawk and snap pictures like visiting royalty.

Next Kehlani got our hearts with a career-spanning set, extra thick on the seductiveness. - Backstage she had a case of the nerves, but on stage she made her performance look effortless.

Anderson .Paak was a consummate showman, bopping from frontman to drummer in a flash, teasing Prince's "Wanna Be Your Lover" before hopping off stage, leaving the crowd in a frenzy. The instrumental segments were extra nice including a .Paak shed session extravaganza. Skill and star presence that are striking when you consider he was all but unknown a year ago. This year Willow Smith, Chloe & Halle and other artists were out out of the backstage and in the photo pit dancing and cheering on Breezy Lovejoy.

Leon Bridges gave us the full “Coming Home” treatment, but proved he was more than your favorite soul revivalist when he brought out r&b up and comer, Solo Woods, for a slow-burning take on "My Pony." Jidenna brought incredible energy, a full onstage complement of African dancers and, of course, impeccable style to his set. But most of all “Classic Man” can’t fail to turn any party over completely. DMX proved that the dog still had bite in what became a Swizz Beatz and DMX joint set for one incredible run. “Ruff Ryders' Anthem” was up there with the day’s all-time high energy moments. DMX performed all the hits, and gave of himself as well, bringing his father out in an emotional recognition of their recent reunion, delivered a prayer for the ages (and got a few Amen!s in reply) and even created a quiet storm moment, stripping down to show the ladies he’s still all muscle and tats.

"Father Stretch My Hands" served as Metro Boomin’s intro song. And once you hear that "If Young Metro don't trust you..." sample, you know it's about to be a party. Suffice to say, Metro Boomin' trusts Philly. He ran through selected hits from the south and east, plus threw in some ringtone hits to get the bodies jiggling in a euphoric way. "Get ratchet at this picnic!" was the refrain as he segued from "Swag Surfing" to "Teach Me How To Dougie" AKA the ultimate millennial moment of the Roots Picnic.

Dev Hynes AKA Blood Orange brought funk and jazz back into the mix with an eclectic set, peppered with cuts from his new album, Free Town. You already knew you loved the sound of Blood Orange but the slap bass in this second to last song was still among the best things we heard all day. The sound was great and Blood Orange's guitar solos blended with his saxophonist in a way that underscores why we love Blood Orange; the melody and emotional energy are matched by real musicianship. Future occupied the other end of the sonic spectrum but nevertheless was one of the most-anticipated sets--he came in big but in the festival’s only real low-energy moment, his set was cut about 20 mins short when a speakers went out due to a blown generator. Apparently bass from the future simply requires more wattage than present-day sound systems can accommodate!

Undisputedly Kaytranada had one of the best sets during the entire day and night. He ran through the hard-knocking remixes (of Amerie, Missy Elliott, Anderson .Paak) that made him a household name and had us in the palm of his hand as he spun selections from his breakout debut album. Okayplayers broke out into an electric slide fit that eventually brought folks over the barrier for a little up close and personal love.

Kaytra was king and the event ended with chants of his name. Dancing to "Lite Spots" and watching a security guard basically go "Fuck it, my day is done" as people in the crowd hopped the fence to dance in the sand was one of the best moments of the Picnic. It speaks to what live music is all about: unpredictability, spontaneity and just wanting to have a damn good time. Kay's set was cut five minutes short, but by then he had given us everything we had wanted and more.

Until Usher x The Roots made us realize the musical journey had just begun. The R&B legend brought his A-game, while the Legendary transformed his catalog into a deep-pocketed, Philly soul-inflected concerto of baby-making music. In just a few songs Questlove and the boys wove Earth, Wind & Fire, Curtis Mayfield and Barry White into hits like “Caught Up” (James Brow-ified) and “You Remind Me” (mashed with the SOS Band), revealing that Usher x The Roots might be the only show you can trainspot and slow grind to at the very same time.

Usher alternated between his gutbucket, got-to-sing-it-all falsetto and karaoke sessions that made us realize that EVERY PERSON IN PHILLY KNOWS EVERY WORD TO *EVERY USHER SONG. Highlights came too fast and furious to process with anything but the backbone and hips but they included “Good Kisser” with extra go-go stank on the BuBubbaBUMP; “Love in This Club” rendered as lover’s rock reggae including full echoey one drop drums from Questo and a cracking “Footsteps In The Dark” drum break under “Crush”--which brought out a surprise duet with the lovely Yuna. The surprises still weren’t done, however, as Lil Jon joined the fun for a rendition of Usher’s ultimate club smash “Yeah!” Dead. Ad-libbing that Usher and The Legendary needed to take their show on the road, Lil Jon inspired Black Thought to reveal that Roots Picnic will indeed be taking a drive--up the turnpike to NYC! --an announcement that blew the crowds mind for the eleventeenth time that day, before Ursher launched into the time-melting falsetto of the ultimate showstopper, the appropriately-named “Climax.”

Roots Picnic 2016 left us drained, sweaty and deliriously happy in that can’t-stop-grinning type of way, where you can’t stop talking about the best moments even though the people you’re telling were also there. And for all those who weren’t there and experiencing the dreaded FOMO...once we know when Roots Picnic is coming to NYC, you can feel it, too.